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Posted at 10:59 AM ET, 09/29/2011

Wild-card race: Baseball’s greatest regular-season finish

What that was, quite simply, was the best day of regular-season baseball the game has ever seen. And there really isn’t even a close second. (Okay, well, when I said the same thing to Boz at 1:45 this morning in the parking lot at Camden Yards, he immediately shot back: “Bobby Thomson.”)


(STEVE NESIUS - REUTERS)
At one point Wednesday night, the final night of the baseball calendar, there were four games being contested to decide the two wild cards, and in three of them the situations were as follows: In Baltimore, a 3-2 game in the seventh inning; in St. Petersburg, Fla., a 7-7 game in the 10th; in Atlanta, a 3-3 game in the 12th.

I am tasked with looking forward today (I think the matchups are Yankees-Tigers and Rangers-Rays in the AL, and Phillies-Cardinals and Brewers-Diamondbacks in the NL). I have a playoff preview to write, and predictions to get wrong. But it is impossible not to spend a few hours looking back first.

I think by now, you know how those three games all played out. But did you realize that in all three of those games, one team was down to its final out before rallying to win? Three blown saves, two walk-off wins, one incredible night. It was baseball’s version of the opening round of the NCAA tournament, with three buzzer-beaters on top of each other. Or the back nine of the Masters on Sunday, with the leaders draining birdie putts, holing out chips and sticking five-irons in the water on 16, 17 and 18 within moments of each other. I was trying to follow one game on my computer, another on a press-box television, and cover the one that was playing out in front of me. At one point, in the coffee-fueled delirium, I could have sworn Craig Kimbrel retired David Ortiz on a grounder to Evan Longoria. (“The glorious insanity,” Boz wrote, “fed on itself and went viral.”)

In truth, I did see the following: I saw Dan Johnson, a 32-year-old journeyman from Coon Rapids, Minn., lug a .108 batting average to the plate, representing the Rays’ final hope in the bottom of the ninth, then, with two outs and two strikes, hit a game-tying homer. I saw the Red Sox lose because they couldn’t retire Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold or Robert Andino in the bottom of the ninth. I saw poor Kimbrel, in Atlanta, walk the bases loaded, give up a game-tying sacrifice fly, and eventually walk off the mound red-faced and heartbroken.

And of course, I saw, and we all saw, the final acts of two of the most gruesome collapses the sport has ever seen – ones that will live right there alongside the 1964 Phillies, 1978 Red Sox, 1995 Angels and 2007 Mets in infamy. In baseball history, no team had ever blown a lead as big as 8 ½ games in September, but this year it happened twice. (The Braves’ lead in the wild card, in fact, was at 10 ½ games at one point in late August.)

The overriding thought this morning is how perfect baseball got this one. I wasn’t thrilled when baseball shifted its schedule this year, so that the season ended on a Wednesday (with night games – ugh), as opposed to its traditional Sunday finish. But it turned out to be pure genius. Baseball didn’t have to share this amazing moment with the NFL – which, let’s be honest, would have cut the television viewership by 80 percent. (Oh, and wait – did Stephen Strasburg really strike out 10 batters in six innings earlier in the day?)

And it was the wild card itself, Bud Selig’s much-maligned (at the time) 1993 invention, designed to spice up the pennant races (and of course, make more money for everyone), that made this possible. The six division races were decided by an average of almost 10 games, but the wild cards were both tied heading into game 162. Obviously, this sort of thing can’t happen every season, but one would hope Selig and the rest of baseball’s powers-that-be can understand how good the format and structure of the game is right now, and not mess with things by adding a second wild card in each league – which, had it been in effect this year, would have rendered last night’s drama moot.

There were 183 days on the baseball calendar this season, and 2,429 games played. Entering Wednesday night, the Red Sox were 77-0 when leading after eight innings. Dan Johnson didn’t have a single hit in the month of September. Craig Kimbrel had not walked three batters in an inning all year.

But for as long as there is baseball played, Wednesday night will be remembered as the night that turned history upside-down, when the impossible was not only possible, but expected.

By  |  10:59 AM ET, 09/29/2011

 
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